Iowa point guard Joe Toussaint readies for potential breakout year on team brimming with talent
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Joe Toussaint is trying not to think too far ahead, but who can blame him for imagining how perfectly this basketball season could play out for a pass-first point guard on an Iowa team loaded with elite scorers?
The sophomore from the Bronx, N.Y., could shatter the Hawkeyes’ single-season assists record of 193, set by Andre Woolridge in 1996.
If everything falls into place.
If all-American center Luka Garza returns for his senior season.
If an excellent trio of 3-point shooters — Jordan Bohannon, CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp — all stay healthy.
If Toussaint himself can display a consistency that was sometimes lacking in a freshman season that was equal parts pizzazz and puzzlement. That would mean junior Connor McCaffery could spend more time at the power forward position where his father, head coach Fran McCaffery, so often liked to use him a year ago and where his flexibility is so valuable.
If there’s a college basketball season at all, with no one able to predict the path that the COVID-19 pandemic will take over the next three months.
“This season is going to be different,” Toussaint told the Register this week, the first time in which Iowa players have been joined on the court by coaches (who were masked and keeping a safe distance away, he pointed out). “I know it’s going to be weird. But hopefully, we have a season because I just want to win. They’ve got us ranked top five. And I definitely see that. Our practices are always hard. There’s no slowing down. No breaks. We push each other.”
Toussaint averaged 6.5 points as a freshman, starting 20 of Iowa’s 31 games. He led the team in steals with 36 and was second in assists with 90 (Connor McCaffery had 124). He made an impressive 83% of his free throws, proving that he can be trusted to be on the court late in close games, a must for a point guard.
But Toussaint only averaged 17.8 minutes per game and was typically on the bench in the waning moments. He sometimes was mistake-prone, committing both 62 turnovers and being called for 62 fouls. He believes he will be steadier in Year 2 with a valuable season under his belt.
Toussaint said he discovered last year that his speed can be his biggest asset, or a liability. He was happy to realize that he has a gear that most Big Ten Conference players do not, and he knows now how much that worries his opponents. He saw it in their eyes at times, especially in his two matchups with Penn State. Toussaint had a season-high 18 points in the first meeting, then a season-high eight assists in the rematch.
He also had Big Ten games against Maryland and Indiana in which he had five assists and five turnovers. He knows he needs to smooth out those rough edges.
It was a deflating end to Toussaint’s first college season when he learned there would be no postseason play. Iowa finished 20-11, never getting the chance to compete in the Big Ten or NCAA tournaments, both canceled by the novel coronavirus that was just starting to spread across the United States.
Toussaint said he was angry when he found out in Indianapolis in March that the Hawkeye season was suddenly over. He felt his team was poised to make a strong run in both tournaments and said the practices that final week were among the best of the season.
Instead, he went home to New York and endured two months of lockdown while that city was hit hard by COVID-19. In May, he was finally able to venture out to find a gym to start practicing in daily. On June 11, he returned to Iowa City and got to work with his teammates.
Toussaint has been striving to improve his layups, not always easy for someone who stands just 6-feet tall. He is employing the Mikan drill that he’s watched Garza do for a year. He’s working on his outside shot, too, and even his free throws.
But Toussaint knows he will be most valuable on this Hawkeye team as a distributor, as someone who can push the pace and let teammates find their space against defenses that will struggle to keep up. Iowa averaged 78 points a game a year ago. That was with Bohannon limited to 10 games before having hip surgery, with Fredrick missing six games for a pair of injuries, with post player Jack Nunge shelved after five games with a torn ACL.
Toussaint said he’s spending most of his time at practices discovering precisely where and when each of his teammates likes to receive the basketball. He enjoys delivering pinpoint passes most of all. He hopes to have plenty of chances to showcase those.
Toussaint is up five pounds, to 190, and said he wants to stay there. He feels stronger and quicker.
He is carrying a little more weight of another kind as well.
Toussaint got word that his friend Brandon Hendricks was the victim of gun violence June 28 back home in the Bronx. Hendricks was attending a birthday barbecue for another friend and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, police there said. The 17-year-old was set to play point guard at a small college in California. Hendricks and Toussaint worked out together in the month before he returned to Iowa.
“That was like my little brother to me, so that hit me hard,” Toussaint said.
“I think about him every day.”
Toussaint wears a wristband during Hawkeye games with the name of his mother, Satuyee, on it. It’s a reminder that she is the reason he plays the sport, he said. This season, he’ll add Hendricks’ name to that tribute.
It’s a season Toussaint is eager to embark on. He knows expectations will be high for the Hawkeyes, who will likely be favored to win the Big Ten if Garza turns down the chance at an early pro career and is back on board.
The pressure on Toussaint, surrounded by so many experienced players, will likely be minimal. But he knows what kind of an impact he could have now that he’s done second-guessing himself for every mistake. Toussaint at full speed, fully confident, and ready to dish the ball to some of the best shooters in college basketball would be a scary prospect indeed for opponents. The speedster could push Iowa all the way to the Final Four.
“We’ve just got to live up to a standard that’s been set for us,” Toussaint said. “I’m excited about the possibility.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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